Classes are in full swing and all of the students seem to be settling into the routine. For many of us, the summit – graduation – is in sight.
Self-disclosure: It’s the end of the second week of my second year, and I’m already feeling exhausted. But the other day, I had tearfully told a friend outside of my program,
“I’m already on the mountain. It’s easier at this point to keep going than to turn back.”
That admission seems very fitting for this upcoming year. But it also rang true when I hiked my second 14er.
Prior to the start of this academic year, I was dreaming of summits. Academic, career-based, and the mountain-type. I had spent my summer in Florida so I was ready for a taste of altitude. I started Googling trail descriptions and settled on Mt. Evans. I texted my friend and fellow classmate, Tavia, to join me on this adventure. This hike was going to be much better than my last hike (see Part 1). I had a bigger pack for snacks and water, it wasn’t winter, and I had a buddy. But, the mountain always has something to teach you.
We started our drive out to Mt. Evans way before the sunrise. It was a bit eerie feeling the mountains surrounding us in the dark but not being able to see them. As we neared the trailhead, we spotted big horn sheep and I jokingly (but also totally seriously) reached out to them to absorb their mountain-climbing skills.
The sun was up by the time we hit the trail. We walked at a steady pace to take in the scenery but also because hiking 12,000 feet is much harder than I remembered. About a mile in, we stopped to rest. Clouds covered the ground below us, making it feel as if we were sitting on top of them rather than on the mountain.
Lesson 1: Chase the sun. Chase the summit. But it’s also important to take time to turn around, rest, and appreciate the beauty of where you’ve been.
Pictures don’t even do it justice.
We hiked up to the first peak, Mt. Spalding (13, 800 feet), and made our way back down. The wind, the altitude, and the scrambling were not fun, but they were an important preview of what was to come when we would begin the final push up Mt. Evans. We made our way down to the saddle connecting the two peaks, sufficiently disoriented. We were surrounded by peaks and valleys and mountain goats, and we were unsure which peak we should head towards. Luckily, I recognized my old friend, Bierstadt, and used it to judge our placement.
Lesson 2: Use your experience, but also learn how to use a compass. And a map. And Bring them with you. (If you missed it, this can also be a metaphor for your beliefs and values and whatever else you have in your life that guides you.)
As we began the very, very slow ascent up Mt. Evans, we spotted patches of snow on the ground and I began to realize that I was underdressed. Yet again. Living in Florida for over 20 years had me convinced that early September would be plenty warm. The cold stung my skin and my pride.
Lesson 3: Be prepared.
In the trail description I had read the night before, it mentioned that these last few miles would be slow and tough but that it was only a Class 2 scramble. I had no idea what that meant and after scrambling to the top of a snowy Bierstadt, I felt confident that Tavia and I could handle this. Another sign that I was underprepared. We slowly scrambled around the side mountain, losing the trail-marking cairns every few feet. We stopped often because we were still worried that we were lost, but I needed to stop to catch my breath a lot because I was terrified of sliding down the steep mountain into the valley 14,000 feet below. The final 200 feet of the climb seemed impossible, but we were already 4 miles in. We had struggled so much to go up, and it would surely be harder to go back down.
“We’re already on the mountain. It’s easier now to keep going than to turn back.”
And so we decided to
Lesson 4: Keep moving forward.
But we also knew we were exhausted and that the dark clouds were beginning to cover the sky. Our original route was definitely not going to happen. In an effort to keep our spirits up, we pressed on towards the summit. So so so close.
If you didn’t know, you can drive to about 100 feet below the summit. (It’s a really really scary drive – I recommend the hike if you’re able). We wanted to hike, but we were also grateful for the popularity of this section of the trail because the final stretch was well maintained and not very steep. And when we reached the summit, I finally felt at peace. For almost a year, I’ve been upset by the fact that I couldn’t appreciate the summit of Bierstadt fully, but up here, we could see for miles. The wind slowed down long enough for pictures and that so so important moment of reflection about what we had spent our entire morning doing (See Lesson 3 from Part 1).
The view from the summit: Wowowweewah
When we got down to the tourist road, Tavia and I made a joint decision to follow the road down from the summit back to our car. We knew we were too tired to go back the way we came and not mentally prepared to find a new trail. According to a ranger we met, this route still counted as hiking. And it also made it more likely that we’d be alive to share this story. I was a bit sour that I hadn’t been prepared to come back down from the summit properly (Lesson 5, Part 1) but it reminded me that on the mountain, and in life you must
Lesson 5: Know your limits. Take care of yourself.
So we walked down the road for five miles. We got chased by big horn sheep (that’s another story), I talked Tavia’s ear off, and we met other hikers who felt that the road was a safer choice. (What a relief!) Just when we thought our feet were broken, we saw the parking lot ahead. I stopped one last time to look back at Mt. Evans, kissed the trail sign, and eagerly ate my peanut butter and banana sandwich that I had packed. (You really can’t go wrong when you pack good snacks, ya’ll.)
Mt. Evans, 14265 feet
This hike was not at all what I had expected. I had thought my first 14er had adequately prepared me for a second, and yet, I was even more physically and mentally exhausted this time around.
It’s the end of the second week of my second year. It’s pretty windy. There’s already been lot’s of scrambling, and honestly, I’m a little scared.
But I’m not hiking alone. And I’m already on the mountain.
For me, it is easier to keep going than to turn back. I hope you keep going, too.
- – Sarah Hudak –